Katherine Conner, author of the story “Relay Operator” appearing in Volume 35.1, on the pleasures and influences of reading her favorite writers.
We all began as readers—kids who haunted the local libraries, who blew their allowance or babysitting cash at the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s. As a preteen, I spent hours at the Northpark Mall in Jackson, Mississippi, combing the bookshelves for the latest R.L. Stine or Christopher Pike. How I loved the cramped rows of slick paperbacks, the faintly sweet smell of fresh ink. A few years later, and I’d moved on to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton. I spent whole summers stretched on a blanket in the backyard, immersed in one horror after another.
Back then, I read for the pure pleasure of it, the suspense, the story. By the time I started writing stories myself, I had graduated to Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, Dan Chaon, Margaret Atwood, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner. From O’Connor, Gay, and Faulkner, I learned the significance of place and atmosphere. From Atwood and Chaon, intricacies of plot. From Welty, quirks of character, and the use of grotesques. But I fell in love, too, with older works by canon favorite Jane Austen and her predecessor, Fanny Burney, whose writing has shaped my own. Both women have been celebrated for their wit, but their work is important too for its emphasis on female relationships, in particular the relationships between sisters. And when I consider the protagonists in my own stories, such as Louise and her sister, Virginia, in “Relay Operator,” I see the influence of Elinor and Marianne in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Camilla and Eugenia in Burney’s Camilla.
And there are others—Edith Wharton (I named my cat after Lily Bart in the House of Mirth), Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates—these are the writers who inspire me, who motivate me to labor over my prose, to refine my sense of character and plot and place. But if forced to pinpoint one author as the most profound influence on my own writing, I’d have to go back to those early years and Stephen King. And maybe this is why I can’t say for sure what techniques I learned from his books—because those were the books that led me to write in the first place. Those dog-eared paperbacks I tore through one after another, creasing the spines, smearing the pages with chocolate and suntan lotion and sweat. Back then, I didn’t know what those books would mean to me, how they would shape my future. All I knew is I wanted to be just where I was, cross-legged on the threadbare blanket I’d spread on the grass, forever bent over those sun-bright pages.